Monday, August 23, 2010

On a Journey to Support Play for All

This post was contributed by AmeriCorps Museum Educator Kate Jones.

Providence Children’s Museum staff members are constantly thinking about how best to support and relate to our diverse audience. In part, how can we ensure that everyone feels comfortable and empowered while playing? This can be challenging even beyond demographic variance, as every child is an individual and every family is a uniquely functioning unit that presents different needs. Yet together our visitors, board members, staff and partners make up a community of learners that support one another and the broader learning community as a whole.

Recently, Museum staff traveled down a less familiar path to continue this journey by creating opportunities to learn about and assess our overall accessibility as an institution – do we provide multiple points of access in our exhibits and programs to meet the diverse physical, intellectual, emotional and social needs of the populations we serve? Although there are ways in which the Museum already follows (and goes beyond) certain accessibility guidelines, it’s important for staff and volunteers to have ongoing training and new information around inclusion issues.

As a second year AmeriCorps member at the Museum, I have been fortunate to help in the formative stages of this project. Having a background in elementary/special education, I feel a strong connection to helping the Museum figure out how to apply fundamentals of educational inclusion to a public space like ours. A crucial aspect of this new initiative has been working to create a “buzz” among staff to keep our goal of accessibility and inclusion on people’s radar so that they feel comfortable and supported to learn. This has ranged from organizing Museum-based trainings to attending community events on disability and inclusion in the area.

From January to April, the RI Developmental Disabilities Council partnered with the University of Rhode Island's Physical Therapy Program and Rhode Island College's Paul V. Sherlock Center to present a Disability Inclusion Film Series. Each month, a different film related to issues on disability and inclusion was screened and followed with a panel discussion. Various staff and AmeriCorps members attended each session and participated in the discussions with thoughtfulness and enthusiasm.

The Tourette Syndrome Association of Rhode Island held an event at the Museum and gave us the documentary “I Have Tourette’s, but Tourette’s Doesn’t Have Me: Dispelling the Myth One Child at a Time,” which we viewed with staff. Although presented through the lens of children with a specific disability, this thought-provoking film brought up certain issues that all children who are perceived as “different” have to face. In addition, the film inspired a lively dialogue about the vast spectrum of learning and interaction styles of children, to which our society still seems to turn a blind eye by promoting a conventional learning “norm.”

In early March, staff and AmeriCorps were trained on how to meet the diverse needs of visitors, through exercises and information about how parents and caregivers of children with disabilities want other people to interact with them. The goal is that, when interacting with any family, to respect and empower every member. Whatever is going on with one member of the family is happening to the whole family; a child does not exist in isolation. At the Museum, this means engaging every member of the family – paying attention to siblings of children who have a disability label, too.

The responses to these efforts to promote awareness have been inspiring – I am often pleasantly surprised to find an email from a fellow staff member keeping me abreast of something going on in the community that might be a beneficial learning experience. In addition, I have been privy to many informal follow-up discussions that display the impact of this accessibility “buzz.”

As Museum staff continue to learn more about the challenges and experiences that children with disabilities and their families may encounter, our perspective will broaden and we will become better informed on how we can continue to create spaces and experiences through which ALL families feel they can have fun and play. By respecting and embracing exceptionality as natural and good, we help set the precedent that EVERY child and family is capable when their needs are supported.

The Museum was recently awarded $2,000 from CVS Caremark for inclusion training for Museum staff and volunteers. Stay tuned to learn where this will lead us next!

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Manufacturing Marionettes

There’s a wonderfully intriguing new marionette display in Strings Attached, created by AmeriCorps Museum Educators Annie Blazejack and Zachary Orefice.

Annie and Zack were introduced to the Museum’s collection of antique marionettes when they photographed and created a digital catalogue of nearly 100 puppets, props and memorabilia handcrafted by Providence puppeteer Betty Huestis and donated to the Museum before her death.

Fascinated by the collection, Annie and Zack sought out some of the rarely seen pieces – the unfinished puppet parts! – and challenged themselves to find a way to include them in an exhibit. “Because the pieces are part of the collection, we asked ourselves how we could share them with visitors,” Zack explained.

The result is 9 to 5, a whimsical factory scene that reimagines Betty Huestis’s creative process. A crew of clown employees staffs five marionette-making stations, stuffing and sewing the puppet pieces as they travel down the assembly line before embroidering features and clothing and stringing the marionettes on the factory floor.

Annie and Zack were intrigued by the idea of creating a more contemporary setting, one that wouldn’t have been used for the marionettes in the 1950s but that remains true to their origins. Small details like the wall of time cards enhance the feel of the factory environment. Annie and Zack acknowledged that there are so many parts of the collection we often don’t share because there isn’t the right context – not only these leftover legs and heads but also some characters that might be viewed as offensive today, removed from their historical context.

But, according to Annie, the puppet parts “are objects that you can find context for. They’re not the first things you’d think of to use in a display … It’s unusual but it still reveals something true and interesting about the whole collection.”

Their exhibit is truly an imaginative way to showcase some of these little-seen parts of the Huestis collection. Look for 9 to 5 over the next few months and let us know what you think!

Friday, August 6, 2010

Get on Board – No Time to Waste!

This post was contributed by AmeriCorps Museum Educator and No Time to Waste actor Gina Sparacino.

At Providence Children’s Museum, when an enthusiastic actor appears in a bowler hat, you know it’s almost show time!

“Ladies and gentlemen! Boys and girls! Museum patrons of all ages! Our performance of No Time to Waste, a 20-minute comedy about trash and recycling, will begin just seconds from now! Doooooon’t be late for No Time to Waste!”

Often times, the voice behind this booming announcement belongs to seasoned performer Bill Oakes. The last remaining member of the “original cast,” Bill has been appearing in No Time to Waste since it was created for the Museum by the City Stage Company in 2002 and has become the de facto “stage manager” for the production. Each year, he trains new AmeriCorps members to join the rotating cast and ensures that the show stays true to its original goals.

“One thing I really enjoy about this play,” shares Bill, “is that the ideas are always current. It’s always important to make the message second nature to the next generation – to help them to think about reducing, reusing, and recycling first and disposing second.” Despite the serious mission, all of the lessons are shared through a very silly, very funny, very interactive experience.

The show begins with a short comedy of errors involving the two main players. As events unfold, shrieks of surprise and giggles abound, and eventually everyone comes to understand that “the landfill is running out of space and there’s no time to waste!” The message about the importance of washing, sharing, repairing and recycling is further emphasized during the audience participation portion of the show. While child volunteers come onstage, wear costumes, and play products made from trees, oil, and minerals, the crowd gets to decide whether to recycle them or – gasp! – send them to the landfill! There are always a few persistent votes from the “trash lobby” but overall recycling almost always wins. Everyone gets a big round of applause and we conclude with a rollicking call-and-response song-and-dance number to bring it all home with style.

As an AmeriCorps member this past year, I was lucky enough to join the No Time to Waste family. Though I’ve performed in plays since fourth grade, I have never acted in a show quite like this. The unpredictable nature of each performance keeps it fresh and interesting for both audience and actors. Of course an element of spontaneity is present in all live theatre; however, there is something particularly exciting about appearing in semi-improvisational interactive theatre with kids.

Naturally, certain groups are shy and less inclined to enter the spotlight. At other performances, everyone is eager to get involved. Kids literally leap up to their feet, thrilled to play the coveted roles of “paper towel,” “plastic bag” and “jam jar.” Grown-ups get involved too – asking questions, contributing suggestions, and even occasionally joining us onstage! Recently, as if it had been scripted, every member of one audience shouted an energetic “YAY!” at the show’s close. Whether or not crowds are that vocal, it’s clear that the message of No Time to Waste is getting through. As Bill puts it, “No Time to Waste appeals to people of all ages and in a fun and fundamental way, teaches about recycling.”
Come join the fun and “talk trash” with us! No Time to Waste plays August 9 and 16 at 10:30, 11:30, 12:15 and 1:15. Check our calendar for performance times in future months.